Teacher Meredith Hamilton greets transitional kindergarten students at Stege Elementary School in Richmond. (Photo by Andrew Reed/EdSource)

A Bay Area school district and its teachers’ union have reached a groundbreaking agreement that will put money and resources behind the effort to turn around a school with declining enrollment and chronically low test scores.

Stege Elementary, a K-6 school in Richmond in the East Bay, will see longer school days, a longer school year and more teachers, who will each receive $10,000 extra pay. The extra money acknowledges that it is a “significantly hard-to-staff school” that suffers from high teacher turnover.

The agreement, which covers the 2019-20 school year, is seen as a potential model for improving other district schools.

“It’s different and we’ve never done anything like this before,” said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union that reached the agreement with the district. “This is really a collaboration and partnership between the union and district staff.” He stopped short of calling it “historic” because it is a one-year agreement and it remains to be seen whether it will achieve its goals. However, it is viewed as a pilot that could be made permanent in 2020-21, when teachers will need to reapply for their jobs as the district strives to find “the right” people to meet students’ needs.

Out of 10,000 California schools, Stege Elementary is among 481 schools cited as lowest-performing in the state in 2017-18, based on poor test scoreshigh suspension rates and chronic absenteeism.

Stege Elementary, pronounced “Steej,” has lost so many students that the West Contra Costa Unified School District has designated it for a redesign that started in February and will fully launch in 2020-21. Instead of giving up on the school and closing it, the district and union want to revitalize it to attract experienced teachers and new students — along with those who have left to attend charters or other schools. Although some community members feared the district might close the school, Superintendent Matthew Duffy assured them during meetings about the redesign that the district is committed to keeping it open.

In the last decade, Stege Elementary, which serves mostly low-income African-American and Latino students, has lost about a third of its students, dropping down to 260 as families turned to charter schools and other district schools.

The agreement, known as a Memorandum of Understanding, grew out of meetings with community and staff members about how to re-imagine Stege Elementary. The district and union agreed to prioritize the hiring of highly qualified teachers, lengthen the school day, give teachers extra prep and collaboration time and add enrichment classes for students.

“It is clear that Stege needs significant supports and a change in structure, rather than minor fixes,” Gonzalez said. “We know that the Stege community has a strong vision of success for its students and we want to ensure that vision is fully supported” by the district.Duffy also praised the agreement that was signed June 3 and will be revisited in June, 2020.

“The United Teachers of Richmond has been a great partner in our work around Stege and I look forward to seeing the results of our increased investment into that school,” he said. “The extra collaboration and preparation time codified in the MOU will allow teachers to refine their instructional practices so their methods better serve students. The teachers, administrators and classified staff members serving Stege are key to ensuring the school grows stronger and more stable as we work with the community to re-imagine the educational program.”

Giving teachers the training they need to work with their challenging student population, including many children who have experienced trauma, is one key element of the plan. Teachers will receive 10 additional days of training, including five before the school year begins and five throughout the school year.

Highlights of Stege Elementary’s agreement for the 2019-20 school year

  • Pay $10,000 stipend to all teachers who agree to work at Stege next year.
  • Add 10 teacher work days to 196 for all teachers.
  • Extend school day by 50 minutes to 3 p.m. to give teachers time to prepare and work together.
  • Add two teachers to offer enrichment classes in physical education, art, music or technology.
  • Hire highly qualified teachers — a top priority — who have completed all requirements to obtain a clear credential. Candidates must complete a teacher preparation program to receive a preliminary credential that is valid for up to five years. They must then complete a Teacher Induction Program with two years of on the job mentoring or be certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
  • Give additional hiring priority to teachers with any of these qualifications: National Board Certification, urban experience, special training.
  • Hire a teacher as an in-house substitute.

Because students won’t attend school on training days, their school year will end one week later than at other district schools — on June 12 instead of June 5. And while teachers are preparing lessons or collaborating with each other for 50 minutes each day, students will be taught enrichment classes in physical education, art, music or technology by two new teachers hired under the agreement. Students’ school days will extend until 3 p.m. daily.

Parents, as well as district and union officials, have been concerned by the high rate of teacher turnover at the school, which many believe contributes to low student academic achievement.

After the 2016-17 school year, 11 of 18 teachers left; after the next year, 15 of 18 teachers left. By the end of last week, four teachers had decided to leave the school next year and 10 had decided to stay. The rest of the teachers must decide by the end of this week. Those who leave the school will be guaranteed a position at another district school, Gonzalez said.

There are now about 260 students in grades K-6, including 94 percent who are low-income, 29 percent who are English learners, 12 percent who have disabilities, 6 percent who are homeless and 1 percent who are foster youth. About 52 percent of students are African-American and 29 percent are Latino or Hispanic.

Kids play at Stege Elementary School in Richmond. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

The union agreed to give the district a $50,000 grant it received from the National Education Association to help pay for a full-time Community School Coordinator. The coordinator is expected to meet with families, teachers and district and community leaders to help a new principal who will be hired next year and will assume leadership of the school in 2020-21. Working with the community, the principal and coordinator will help come up with the final redesign plan, Gonzalez said. The district has agreed to pay the remaining salary and benefits costs for the coordinator not covered by the grant.

The union hopes the redesign will help transform the school into a “full service community school” that includes “deep parent, community, student and staff engagement in programs and services,” he added. Although the school does not currently provide social and mental health services, Gonzalez said he expects the Community School Coordinator to apply for grants and pursue school and county partnerships that could bring those services to the school in 2020-21.

The union is paying the salaries of three teachers who are working this summer visiting students’ homes, collecting data about students and their needs and conducting community meetings with the district.

The district hopes to improve the caliber of instruction by placing a priority on hiring fully credentialed teachers who have completed all necessary on-the-job training after first obtaining preliminary credentials.

The district will also pay a $140 fee for each of two years to help those who don’t already have National Board Certification, but commit to obtaining it. The certification trains teachers in nationally recognized standards and requires them to “demonstrate advanced knowledge, skills and practice” in their selected area of expertise by completing three portfolio assignments and passing a rigorous assessment, according to the organization’s website.

Other desired training includes experience working in high-poverty urban areas, or training in culturally responsive teaching strategies, positive behavior strategies and/or restorative justice practices.

Culturally responsive teaching takes into consideration the cultural backgrounds of students as a way to engage students in their learning. Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions, known as PBIS, use a system of positive rewards to reduce student discipline. And restorative justice focuses on conflict resolution that builds healthy relationships between students and staff instead of punitive discipline.

“As a district, we have to do better for the Stege community, students and educators and work alongside them,” Gonzalez said. “We are deeply committed to supporting this school, to working with district staff and will continue to work with all stakeholders to make sure we are serving kids. There is genuine and honest energy by families, educators, staff, board members and advocates to do things differently moving forward and our hope is that we will create change for all kids in the Stege community.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.